December 17, 2010 by David Gillaspie
They all know someone.
It’s a teammate or high school friend who never made the Christmas letter list.
The men who adjusted to a post-Vietnam War life have friends who remind them of a missing someone.
If you talk to them long enough you’ll discover they know how it all happened: Plane crash, ambush, booby trap, car accident, or shot in a gun battle.
And they probably went to the funeral. If not that one, others for the same reason.
You can’t make those two words sound good, together or apart.
Alex Paul writes about the War Dead and the War Dying. In his novel, Suicide Wall, he takes five middle-aged guys on a journey not found in the modern war fiction, pushing them to come to grips with their complicity in the Vietnam War.
In a story more Gardens of Stone than Forrest Gump, Paul focuses on the jobs and lives of men searching for meaning in familiar territory, yet affected by the war in ways they can’t know. From Oregon, to Reno, and back, the men face a responsibility they once handed to others.
As veterans or protestors, conscientious objectors or run of the mill draft dodgers, Alex Paul introduces each world in deft strokes.
Before I continue, let me say I am an Army veteran, one of the first wave of all-volunteers (74-76) that Vietnam-era drill sergeants committed to whip into shape to show America was still strong. Those guys brought the hammer like twenty-four hour a day coaches. They made sure we understood the enemy watched and prepared for us. They live Suicide Wall.
Stepping back from the divided politics of the times, Paul introduces a engineer’s take on war tactics that will add to most history buff’s understanding of the war.
In what sounds like words straight out of Robert McNamara’s face, Alex Paul writes about the change from American advisors in the Vietnam War, to logging ‘battalion days.’
You’ve heard of battalion days? As in, the more battalion days you have in the field, the better war you fight. Battalion days fit right in with body-counts and number-of-weapons-captured in rating war success. It something you can put in a report.
Why pick on Robert McNamara? He liked reports.
He was Secretary of Defense for a good stretch of Vietnam. Among other public jobs, he worked in the Army Air Force Office of Statistical Control during WWII where he analyzed U.S. bombers’ kill patterns. It sounds like nice, clean, work on the remf-scale. Someone had to make sure the carpet bombing of sixty-six Japanese cities before the atomic bombs wasn’t wasteful.
Robert McNamara demanded evidence of war in Vietnam, and he got it in nice, clean, reports. And he’s a convenient boogey-man.
Although never mentioned in Suicide Wall, the McNamara-effect undermined the military effort in Vietnam. Alex Paul doesn’t point fingers, but the McNamara prints are all over his story.
Once you’ve read enough material on the Vietnam-era, seen Platoon and Full Metal Jacket more than anyone you know, pick up Suicide Wall and get the home front feel in the rear view mirror.
It is living history at its finest; confusing, shocking, and utterly moving.